At a time even before the internet, there were portrayals of what the female body was expected to look like. In the United States, women like Marilyn Monroe represent an idealized version of feminine beauty and set the foundation for female beauty. Whether it was magazine covers or photoshopped images on billboards, women have been given a clear picture of how they are supposed to look and act to be seen as conducive and to fit in.
Nowadays, cosmetic surgeries are easier to access and altered versions of women’s bodies are visible all over social media. Young women insecure about their bodies are presented with ads about hair removal, promises of the beauty of lip fillers, and a myriad of other advertisements suggesting the best courses of action that will make them visually “perfect”.
The Imperfections of Social Media
What social media fails to consider is that no one is perfect every second of the day. In fact, the notion of perfectionism alone is an unrealistic standard that no one can meet.
Social media has been shown to negatively affect female body image relationships and the added social pressures of this perfectionism being prevalent online could continue to affect the self-esteem of young girls being exposed to this media every day. So, how do we combat the notion moving forward that perfectionism is an achievable goal?
As virtual interaction became more of a necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teenage students spent more time at home and felt more isolated from their peers than ever. Stress and anxiety brought upon teenagers and adolescents from pushing classes online, halting sports and recreation activities, and forcing them to be in their houses instead of surrounded by peers, prevented them from gaining the social support necessary for healthy cognitive development.
And with nowhere to go, and very few people to talk to in real life, people started turning toward social media for their daily doses of human interaction.
But the issue with social media today is that it isn’t always real. The concept of beauty is one that has evolved over time. The standard of beauty we see on social media is often impossible to achieve: an article titled 71% of people edit their selfies found that a majority of the 3,000-plus people surveyed in the UK altered their images before posting them to social media. And when people begin to believe that they can aspire towards an oftentimes unnatural level of perfection, that can affect the self-esteem of those who no longer appear to fit the unrealistic beauty standard or have a beauty that deviates from the social norm.
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But these aspirations for perfection cannot only be attributed to social media: many times, young women can feel the pressure for perfection from their own families.
There is a relationship between mother and daughter that has been systematically built up over generations. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical and Adolescent Psychology, “[A] mother’s body dissatisfaction significantly and positively predicted daughter’s body dissatisfaction during the experiment”. In other words, the ways that mothers model body satisfaction and play into beauty ideals can greatly impact their daughter’s perception of their own beauty.
This influence from home and online can cause problems in women and girls of all ages using the internet. Another study from the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology titled Overparenting, emotion dysregulation, and problematic internet use among female emerging adults found that problematic internet use has been seen as an emerging trend in mental health-related issues among female emerging adults. The role of overparenting (more commonly referred to as “helicopter parenting”) in these relationships has been linked to emotional dysregulation and problematic emotional counterbalancing in young adult women.
The same study found that emotional dysregulation was also linked with internet addiction, inappropriate social media usage, and perception, as well as an unhealthy relationship with the subjects’ academic or future careers:
“Research has documented that 8% of U.S. college students experience internet addiction (Tang et al., 2018), with even greater percentages reported for specific internet-related addictions such as online gaming (24.8%) and online social networking (25.4%).”
The mother’s role in a developing girl can also negatively impact her relationship with food and diet. In the United States, the mother figure has historically been associated with selecting food options for the family and making dietary decisions. This includes grocery shopping, meal planning, prep, considering the health effects of food, and nutritional research. University of Florida researcher Eboni Baugh’s study, “Do I Look Fat in This?”: The Role of the Mother-Daughter Relationships in Determining Body Image, claims that the connection between mother and daughter relationships and food has also been shown to influence the daughter’s relationship with diet as they grow older.
“Daughters’ perceptions of their bodies and subsequent eating and dieting behaviors have been shown to be directly related to the verbal and nonverbal messages they receive from their mothers,” wrote Baugh. “Through modeling, teasing, pressure, and even food restriction, mothers make a noticeable impact on their daughters’ body image and eating behaviors.”
The developmental stages of relationships between food and body are different for daughters growing up in the household. Female or female-identifying individuals have been shown as more likely to adopt strategies relating to weight loss and working to achieve a body size that is considered ‘ideal’ both in public opinion and in the eyes of their mother. Baugh reiterates this notion that the ideal or perfect body type is taught as a cultural expectation to female children incredibly early on in their development, and even asserts that mothers who influence their daughters to lose weight contribute to their daughter’s self-esteem issues, dissatisfaction with their body type and negative body perception.
Image by Merakist
Children’s Body Image and Social Media
According to a Common Sense Media article titled At what age does media begin affecting my child’s body image? one in every four children has some type of dieting behavior by the age of seven. This same study found that mothers with a negative relationship with their own bodies and who over parent also have a negative influence on their children. Mother’s attitudes often directly affect the attitudes that female children display within themselves, and these attitudes remain present over the course of emerging adulthood and into later life. An article published in USA Today titled Experts: Mom has the biggest impact on girls’ body image suggests mothers have the power to shape the way young women and girls feel about their bodies.
Emotional dysregulation has also been shown to share a relationship with low levels of self-esteem. Low self-esteem leads to worsened mental health outcomes for teenage girls, and at a time when anxiety and depression are at an all-time high in the United States, the increasing rates of anxiety and depression could lead to increased rates of low self-esteem. If teenage girls are being exposed to low self-esteem by branching out to media and being told how to act, behave and dress for attention, this fictitious version of beauty has the potential to ruin a child’s perception of themselves and can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
In looking at the effects of low self-esteem and the criteria for positive development and positive traits and behaviors, this low self-esteem may lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression, which also leads to less positive peer relationships. Positive peer relationships are one of the highest determining factors of well-being and life response success in teenagers.
Characteristics of personal resilience can help build confidence and positive emotional responses to the relationship that one should have with the way they look, the food they eat, and their relationships. With the added pressures of social media and the implications of this instant gratification system, it’s challenging to break the unhealthy patterns being created with social media, especially during this period of social isolation. It’s important to build healthy boundaries with children and their social media use. The instant gratification of being told how amazing their pictures are or how amazing they look online may be pulling away from their ability to appreciate and understand the world around them.
Putting healthy, realistic expectations for teenagers on social media might help them with understanding who they are without the added pressure of trying to look a certain way.